The state of Path of Exile

Image for The state of Path of Exile
(Image credit: Grinding Gear Games)

The Forbidden Sanctum is the latest expansion for Path of Exile, and brings with it the usual suspects: a new challenge league, overhauls to existing systems and builds, and new ways to play. For many players, it's an update that couldn't come soon enough. The last league, themed around the enigmatic Kalandra, was so bad that many players wanted to throw it back in the lake it came from.

A distressing lack of loot, a mediocre league mechanic, and the continued presence of frustrating Archnemesis monsters made players quit in droves. It got so bad that even full-time PoE streamers felt the need to stop mapping and go outside their homes, which was… unsettling. Despite multiple updates and patches, Lake of Kalandra ended up being one of the worst leagues in memory.

However, all is not lost. Initial impressions of The Forbidden Sanctum are promising. It features a roguelike mechanic that promises great rewards if you can clear its procedurally generated levels, a totally revamped rare monster system replacing Archnemesis, and loot drops that are back in line with expectations. After a weekend of scuffed cobra lash leveling and explode blade vortex mapping, I can tell you with confidence that the game we thought we'd lost in 3.19 is back.

So, how is Path of Exile right now?

Better. Like any league start, 3.20 was not without its issues. A disconnect bug threw players back in the queue, and a bug with one of the bosses in the Sanctum squashed Zizaran (opens in new tab). A live update thread (opens in new tab) details all the hotfixes and updates, which mostly seem minor in nature.

With the general state of the game being largely back to normal, a lot of focus has been on the Forbidden Sanctum itself. Billed as a roguelike, it features a four-floor dungeon with bosses, traps, and new mechanics. It introduces a new health pool of sorts called resolve, which you lose when you get hit by attacks or traps. If you run out of resolve (or just die normally), your run is over. Each floor has eight rooms, and every map you run on the atlas gives you access to one room.

As league mechanics go, this one is definitely interesting. Because of the way resolve works, it highly incentivizes players learning boss patterns and dodging skillshots—even if you can tank Sirus beams to the face, if you get hit in the Sanctum you'll still lose resolve. The rewards are definitely there for those willing to make the commitment, however. I've seen Sanctum end bonuses including multiple divine orbs and there's even a screenshot floating around on Reddit (opens in new tab) of someone being offered a mirror.

Starting out, it can be frustrating. I had multiple runs early on where I fought through a few rooms, got hit by some minibosses, and ended up leaving with nothing. The Aureus coins you pick up in the dungeon mean nothing if you don't find the merchant, which given the random nature of the rooms is no guarantee. And certain builds will have a much easier time than others, with totem and minion builds seemingly head and shoulders above the rest. But Grinding Gear's mechanics often come out a little overtuned and then get iterated on over the course of a league, so I'm hopeful this one will end up being a ton of fun. 

(Image credit: Grinding Gear Games)

Ruthless

There Sanctum league put another gift under our Christmas trees this year. The Ruthless difficulty is a new way to play PoE, and it's not for the faint of heart.

Ruthless raises the difficulty way up in a number of ways. Loot in general and skill gems specifically are virtually nonexistent, with almost all items being normal and a rare item cause for much rejoicing. Movement skills are disabled, compounding XP penalties begin as you get to maps, the crafting bench has been removed, bosses regain health if they kill you. In short, the name applies.

Personally, I think Ruthless is awesome. It's diametrically opposite to how most folks enjoy playing PoE—there's no zooming through maps, blowing up screens of monsters before you see them, scooping up fountains of loot. It's a slog, diabolically difficult and totally addictive. You can't even buy skill gems from merchants, so there's a real feeling of making do with what you find lying around. Every step of progress feels earned, and every monster feels dangerous.

(Image credit: Grinding Gear Games)

Are the players happy?

Mostly. There have been posts and tweets about balance issues for the Sanctum, but the clarion calls of complaints from keyboard warriors on Reddit have been conspicuously less present this time round. Everyone seems to be broadly satisfied and having a good time, and the league hit a concurrent user spike of 213,480 players.

The jury's still out on a number of things. Will the changes to eldritch altars make it so I don't have to run to the boss, kill it, then go back and clear the map? Will the jewel changes make ailment immunity easier to obtain? Will the Elder actually drop Watcher's Eyes for me now that the bonus drop rate is baked-in instead of on the atlas tree? Will Mathil (opens in new tab) ever find a build he likes? We don't know yet, but I'm looking forward to finding out.